Hello! I’m finally getting around to posting the Paul O. Zelinsky critique. As many have already said, Mr. Zelinsky was more than helpful in his insights and suggestions. I found pretty much everything he mentioned about my artwork to be true-both the things I had already suspected, and the things that were new to me. The biggest things for me were the reminder to NOT rush through something, and to consider the entire piece. So often I’m worried about the amount of time I have to finish a project, and hence don’t have a good, detailed sketch to work off of nor do I allow myself the time to get everything right. In a sense, although I am spending hours late at night working, I guess I’m being a little lazy–cutting corners, not trying to really work through something that I know is wrong, but shrug my shoulders and think…good enough. And that absolutely is not good enough. If I’m going to be spending valuable time on something, I need to give it my all and really think through things. Like my figures’ postures, and perspective, and where the lights and darks would really go.
I’ve included the entire critique. The illustration I submitted was a Christmas card I made for my family this past Christmas. It’s not part of a story or larger piece, simply a stand alone card. Thanks again to Mr. Zelinsky and Katie Wools, as well as this wonderful organization.
SCBWI PORTFOLIO CRITIQUE
Name of Illustrator ___Eileen Ewen___________________________________
Name of Reviewer ____Paul Zelinsky__________________________________
Thank you for letting me know what you were hoping to hear about from me! I’m glad to give you my opinion about these things.
First, your image is very nicely done. Nothing wrong as far as I can see with all blue and yellow in my opinion. Those are the colors of Sweden.
I am totally convinced by the upper part of it: the window, Santa, the children’s upper halves. Their heads and hair are beautifully handled. Hilary Knight didn’t invent that kind of springy linework and doesn’t have exclusive rights to it; I actually like the way your drawing doesn’t overdo that quality.
About Santa and the little boy not looking at him: I played around with your image in Photoshop, to see what it would look like if the children were flopped so that the boy was on the left looking at Santa, and then if the children stayed in the same place and Santa was flopped, so he was heading off to the upper left, and in both cases something about the overall composition felt less comfortable. In both cases a sense of movement from lower left to upper right was diminished by the change, and the result felt less stable to me. So I like that Santa is where he is, anyway.
That’s compositional. In illustration terms, I do indeed wonder why the boy is not looking at Santa. None of the kids are really looking at him, but especially that boy. Considering that this isn’t the illustration to a text, it doesn’t mean much to me to say that this is good or bad; if the boy were looking at something other than Santa (a moth on the window?) it would give us more to look at. His gaze away from Santa isn’t particularly compelling and doesn’t add mystery or story to the scene (I guess Santa could be moving fast, and so be unnoticed by the three children but there aren’t enough clues to make it seem that this is an intended interpretation), and it could look like you just didn’t know how to make him look in a more complicated direction than this. To have his body facing left, as he is now, and his face looking up to the right, would probably require your looking at a real child to see how the neck would twist.
You’ve done a good job in the figures and their clothing—it’s an effective stylization, except that the hem of the girl’s robe lifting up in the back like that makes it appear that her legs are sticking out toward us like the boy’s legs on the chair. If she were just standing on tiptoe, wouldn’t we be looking down at that hem as it goes around her legs, and we would not see any of the far side of it?
It’s actually the whole bottom edge of the picture, I think, that is not quite as realized as what’s farther up. On the top, your composition is very strong. Toward the bottom, though, I think your handling of perspective has gotten you into a little trouble.
I recognize that you’re not trying to make a realistic picture that adheres to all rules of perspective. But I don’t think the inconsistencies you’ve put into the floor area work in your favor.
Sometimes you can get away with showing an object from straight on, like your fire truck, the books on top of it, and the cat on the left, even though it is supposedly sitting on a floor that we’re looking down on. But you have so much floor to look at, and under and near the chair there is nothing going on on that floor except the big blue shadow of the chair, which doesn’t look that much like a shadow anyway. It is surrounded by so much small stuff that all comes to an end where the shadow begins—chair leg, boy’s feet, cat’s foot, chair other leg, truck headlight, chair other leg—that I don’t get a sense of shapes in coherent relationship.
Making a nice composition out of what is under and around the chair is a bit of a challenge, but I think this is the weakest part of your drawing right now.
Perhaps you should lower the line between the floor and the wall, so that there’s less floor overall, and also so that our line of sight will be set at a lower level, and the feeling of looking up at Santa and the moon could be enhanced. Then start thinking of the way things align or overlap. Overlapping is the way to make space, and aligning pulls things onto the same level. So the big brother’s toes aligning with the edge of the floor, and the cat’s paw doing the same thing, are probably not good. The big toe of that brother lining up with the chair leg is also not great. That negative shape of the underside of the chair is a big rectangle, not what you want. By contrast, I’d say that the way the boy’s arm and the cat’s tail slice up the visible bits of the chair are very nice, a good example of using darks and lights and overlap.
The large areas of contrasting values that you have over the top part of the image seem to make that whole area of little things on the floor feel weaker. Could the chair be more substantial, and include a cross-bar that could go behind the boy’s feet? In all honesty, a little more variation in the children’s poses might add more interest and humanity—i.e., suppose that central boy had one leg different from the other, maybe coming partway down in front of the chair? Or maybe to the side of the chair? I’m not sure if there exists a reasonable and possible pose like that but the poses maybe could do more than they do here to keep us from being aware that we’re not seeing any faces. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes a pose can say so much that you don’t know you’re not seeing a face. The girl gripping her brother’s pajamas says a lot, but the fact that all of the children are using their legs symmetrically does slightly inhibit the degree of expression.
I don’t know how much you’re concerned about treating light in a realistic way. A (more) realistic treatment would mean a huge stream of yellow light coming in the window and lighting the edges of the children (and the window mullions) down to their waists, and then I think that pale blue light coming from above which is illuminating the interior of the room, and casting the shadows we see under the windowsill and the chairs. (Moonlight wouldn’t do any of those things; it’s coming in toward us). With this pale interior light, an expectation would be that the blue of the wall would get darker as you go down toward the floor. The floor then would be lighter (ignoring the local color of the floor) because the light is hitting it straight on and not glancingly as on the wall. What you have here is the wall actually getting lighter the lower you go. While a convincing feeling is all you need in a picture, and not an accurate account of lighting, there can be a relation between the two. Looking at this image, I do think that more darkness across the bottom would give that area more weight, and a greater opportunity to put together simple and slightly larger shapes in a way that minimizes the slightly fussy feeling I think is there now. In other words, I think it would help to put a gradation on your wall to make the bottom of it significantly darker than it is now.
So that is pretty much everything I would say about your card image. I hope it’s useful, at least in a general way when you make other pictures. The principles I am talking about relate to everything in picture-making, I think.